In an effort to combat Chinese espionage in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has recently launched a nationwide investigation aimed at Chinese student visa holders suspected of having undisclosed Chinese military ties.
FBI officials interviewed Chinese student visa holders in more than 25 American cities—an initiative that some experts call the largest known crackdown since the United States and China restored diplomatic relations in 1979.
Chinese espionage via student visa programs has become an increasing threat to the nation’s national security. Many of these students have direct ties to Chinese military and its ruling Communist Party and are sent to acquire knowledge of U.S. technological, military, and cyber operations.
The Chinese espionage threat is not unwarranted. Chinese visa holders represented more than a third, or approximately 370,000, of the 1.1 total number of student visa holders in the 2018-2019 school year. Some of these holders committed high-level crimes including recruiting spies for Chinese intelligence agencies, transporting U.S. cancer research cells to Chinese universities, and sending U.S. military documents and information to China.
Chinese spying operations against the U.S. do not end at universities. In the past few decades, China has also attempted to infiltrate American embassies and the highest levels of American corporations. In 2017, members of the Chinese military were indicted for breaching the credit reporting company Equifax, which exposed the personal information of some 150 million Americans to fraud and abuse.
In addition to the FBI’s nationwide investigation, there have been other recent increased efforts to help address espionage concerns. In May, the State Department prepared to revoke the visas of some 3,000 Chinese students in the U.S—an all-time high—citing national security concerns as its primary reason. In July, the Trump administration considered travel restrictions on members of the Chinese Communist Party to the United States. During the same month, the administration also barred new foreign students, many of them Chinese nationals, if they were taking classes solely online as a way to prevent fraud and other national security risks.
The vast majority of Chinese students are not compromising the nation’s national security, but it remains critically important to mitigate real threats posed by the Chinese government. Student visa programs should benefit both the United States and students seeking to advance their education. Yet, China continues to exploit these programs to gain a competitive advantage over the U.S. economy, military, and technology sectors.